Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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Banzai, political intrigue — and the Babe
Posted Apr 5, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated Apr 5, 2012 at 06:56 PM
Thanks to a lousy meal in a Tokyo restaurant, Rob Fitts has added a delicious entrée for baseball historians to sample.
“Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan” (University of Nebraska Press, $34.95, hardback, 320 pages), is a well-researched, captivating look at a team of American baseball stars on a goodwill tour to Japan. Led by Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Jimmie Foxx and others, the tour drew thousands of enthusiastic fans and appeared to be a balm for the growing diplomatic rift between the United States and Japan.
But Japan was beginning to fracture under growing nationalism, and an attempted coup and assassination threatened not only the government, but also the players, who were innocent bystanders in what could have been a tragic event. These events ultimately led to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.
Back to that awful meal. Fitts was meeting with members of the Tokyo chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research in October 2003, and after picking at “the rock-hard, tasteless dishes,” the discussion turned to a project about the 1934 All American tour of Japan.
At first, Fitts had little stomach for the topic. A few articles intrigued him, but the project was scrapped until a few years later.
“I started reading a biography of Tojo and came across a reference to the coup attempt in November 1934 when the players were over there,” Fitts said by telephone. “I thought. ‘holy cow, I’ve got a story.’ ”
That began a difficult but ultimately rewarding project of researching and writing. “I went from book to book to book,” he said. “I didn’t know anything.”
Fitts is being humble. He is no stranger to Japanese baseball, having written several articles on the subject. He also authored two books: “Remembering Japanese Baseball,” and a biography of Wally Yonamine, the first American to play professionally in Japan after World War II. His Japanese baseball card collection is extensive.
Fitts’ knowledge of Japanese culture is also vast, thanks to his research and from personal experience. His wife Sarah spent her senior year of high school in Japan as an exchange student, majored in Japanese history in college, and worked professionally in Japan for two years as an “exchange lawyer” for her firm.
This was a tougher assignment, though. Most of Fitts’ expertise involved post-World War II Japan. The attempted coup in 1934 “is just a footnote in history,” and details did not emerge until the war crimes trials held in Japan in 1946.
“There’s no book on the 1934 coup, not even a paper. There are prison journals,” Fitts said. “No scholar had ever realized that the coup and the baseball tour happened at the same time.”
And that raises an interesting, “what if.” As in, what if Ruth, Gehrig and Co. had been caught in the cross-hairs of an attempt to overthrow the Japanese government?
“I know it sounds far-fetched, but yeah it makes you think, ‘what if they had killed Babe Ruth?’ ” Fitts said.
“Banzai Babe Ruth” follows the players on their goodwill tour, and Fitts weaves together a compelling narrative about the 18-game series and the events swirling around it in Japan. Statistics were gleaned from the meticulous batter-by-batter accounts in the Tokyo newspapers, but other sources were needed for the games outside of Japan’s capital city. Fitts relied on the diaries of the Japanese players in several instances.
Ruth certainly was the tour’s drawing card. At the tail end of his career and knowing he would not be returning to the New York Yankees as a player, Ruth was given the chance to manage the All Americans. Basically, he was auditioning for a job. An interesting subplot has Mack considering Ruth as his own replacement for the Philadelphia Athletics for the 1935 season.
The most eccentric member of the American team was catcher Moe Berg. The multilingual, cerebral and secretive Berg later would become a spy — but in 1934 he was just a player who made odd decisions, like photographing panoramic views of the Tokyo skyline after sneaking onto the roof of a Tokyo hospital.
“I really wanted to find evidence of him being a spy (in 1934) but I couldn’t,” Fitts said.
In fact, Berg was not a very savvy spy. Three times later in his espionage career, Berg would be arrested for taking photos or film — for example, he took pictures of the bridge that spanned the Yalu River, the border between China and Korea. He also did not hide his film, but carried it through customs.
“You would think a spy would have been a little more sophisticated,” Fitts said.
The difficulty in doing a book about an event that happened nearly 80 years ago is that most, if not all, of the main characters are dead. Fitts was lucky that one member of the traveling party was still alive and lucid.
Julia Ruth Stevens, now 94 and living in Arizona, is Ruth’s stepdaughter. Thanks to some connections through his fellow SABR members, Fitts was able to meet with her.
“She had a diary,” Fitts said. “After a few discussions, she said she’d read it to me. She said she wrote some personal things in there that she didn’t want anyone else to read, so she read it to me.”
While the revelations from the diary were not earth-shattering, it did give Fitts a timeline in which to place the players as they traveled through Japan.
Fitts makes an effort to give the Japanese players their due. While not known to many American baseball fans, some are still revered in Japan.
Eiji Sawamura was pitching for his high school team in early 1934. That fall he was facing Ruth, Gehrig and the rest of the All Americans’ big bats. For one game, Sawamura was dominant, ultimately losing 1-0 when Gehrig homered in the seventh inning. The feat made him a national hero, and he would eventually fight for his country during World War II. He was later killed the ship he was on was sunk off Taiwan by an American submarine.
“I thought he was overrated, a symbol,” Fitts said. “An important player, but a symbol.”
The All American goodwill tour of 1934 was meant to be symbolic and appeared to achieve its goal. But Ruth and other members felt betrayed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ruth went as far as tossing relics he had bought in Japan out of the window of his Manhattan apartment after hearing the news.
Baseball lovers will learn a lot from “Banzai Babe Ruth,” and so will history lovers.
And if this book has you hungering for more Japanese baseball, Fitts will satisfy those pangs. His next book will be about pitcher Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese player to make it to the majors (1964-65 with the San Francisco Giants).
“It’s not going to be a true biography,” Fitts said. “It’s going to focus on him but not on the pennant races. Eight-tenths of it will be outside the diamond.”
Fitts already has been in contact with Murakami, who still lives in Japan. Hopefully when the project moves along and they meet again, Fitts will find a better restaurant.